I. Definition and Scripture Terms.
The word angel is applied in Scripture to an order of supernatural or heavenly beings whose business it is to act as God’s messengers to men, and as agents who carry out His will. Both in Hebrew and Greek the word is applied to human messengers (1Ki 19:2; Lu 7:24); in Hebrew it is used in the singular to denote a Divine messenger, and in the plural for human messengers, although there are exceptions to both usages. It is applied to the prophet Haggai (Hag 1:13), to the priest (Mal 2:7), and to the messenger who is to prepare the way of the Lord (Mal 3:1). Other Hebrew words and phrases applied to angels are bene ha-’elohim (Ge 6:2,4; Job 1:6; 2:1) and bene ‘elim (Ps 29:1; 89:6), i.e. sons of the ‘elohim or ‘elim; this means, according to a common Hebrew usage, members of the class called ‘elohim or ‘elim, the heavenly powers. It seems doubtful whether the word ‘elohim, standing by itself, is ever used to describe angels, although Septuagint so translates it in a few passages.
The most notable instance is Ps 8:5; where the Revised Version (British and American) gives, "Thou hast made him but little lower than God," with the English Revised Version, margin reading of "the angels" for "God" (compare Heb 2:7,9); qedhoshim "holy ones" (Ps 89:5,7), a name suggesting the fact that they belong to God; ‘ir, ‘irim, "watcher," "watchers" (Da 4:13,17,23). Other expressions are used to designate angels collectively: codh, "council" (Ps 89:7), where the reference may be to an inner group of exalted angels; ‘edhah and qahal, "congregation" (Ps 82:1; 89:5); and finally tsabha’, tsebha’oth, "host," "hosts," as in the familiar phrase "the God of hosts."
In New Testament the word aggelos, when it refers to a Divine messenger, is frequently accompanied by some phrase which makes this meaning clear, e.g. "the angels of heaven" (Mt 24:36). Angels belong to the "heavenly host" (Lu 2:13). In reference to their nature they are called "spirits" (Heb 1:14). Paul evidently referred to the ordered ranks of supra-mundane beings in a group of words that are found in various combinations, namely, archai, "principalities," exousiai, "powers," thronoi, "thrones," kuriotetes, "dominions," and dunameis, also translated "powers." The first four are apparently used in a good sense in Col 1:16, where it is said that all these beings were created through Christ and unto Him; in most of the other passages in which words from this group occur, they seem to represent evil powers. We are told that our wrestling is against them (Eph 6:12), and that Christ triumphs over the principalities and powers (Col 2:15; compare Ro 8:38; 1Co 15:24). In two passages the word archaggelos, "archangel" or chief angel, occurs: "the voice of the archangel" (1Th 4:16), and "Michael the archangel" (Jude 1:9).
II. Angels in Old Testament.
1. Nature, Appearances and Functions:
Everywhere in the Old Testament the existence of angels is assumed. The creation of angels is referred to in Ps 148:2,5 (compare Col 1:16). They were present at the creation of the world, and were so filled with wonder and gladness that they "shouted for joy" (Job 38:7). Of their nature we are told nothing. In general they are simply regarded as embodiments of their mission. Though presumably the holiest of created beings, they are charged by God with folly (Job 4:18), and we are told that "he putteth no trust in his holy ones" (Job 15:15).
References to the fall of the angels are only found in the obscure and probably corrupt passage Ge 6:1-4, and in the interdependent passages 2Pe 2:4 and Jude 1:6, which draw their inspiration from the Apocryphal book of Enoch. Demons are mentioned (see DEMON); and although Satan appears among the sons of God (Job 1:6; 2:1), there is a growing tendency in later writers to attribute to him a malignity that is all his own (see SATAN).
As to their outward appearance, it is evident that they bore the human form, and could at times be mistaken for men (Eze 9:2; Ge 18:2,16). There is no hint that they ever appeared in female form. The conception of angels as winged beings, so familiar in Christian art, finds no support in Scripture (except, perhaps Da 9:21; Re 14:6, where angels are represented as "flying"). The cherubim and seraphim (see CHERUB; SERAPHIM) are represented as winged (Ex 25:20; Isa 6:2); winged also are the symbolic living creatures of Eze (Eze 1:6; compare Re 4:8).
As above stated, angels are messengers and instruments of the Divine will. As a rule they exercise no influence in the physical sphere. In several instances, however, they are represented as destroying angels: two angels are commissioned to destroy Sodom (Ge 19:13); when David numbers the people, an angel destroys them by pestilence (2Sa 24:16); it is by an angel that the Assyrian army is destroyed (2Ki 19:35); and Ezekiel hears six angels receiving the command to destroy those who were sinful in Jerusalem (Eze 9:1,5,7). In this connection should be noted the expression "angels of evil," i.e. angels that bring evil upon men from God and execute His judgments (Ps 78:49; compare 1Sa 16:14). Angels appear to Jacob in dreams (Ge 28:12; 31:11). The angel who meets Balaam is visible first to the ass, and not to the rider (Nu 22 ff). Angels interpret God’s will, showing man what is right for him (Job 33:23). The idea of angels as caring for men also appears (Ps 91:11 f), although the modern conception of the possession by each man of a special guardian angel is not found in Old Testament.
2. The Angelic Host:
The phrase "the host of heaven" is applied to the stars, which were sometimes worshipped by idolatrous Jews (Jer 33:22; 2Ki 21:3; Ze 1:5); the name is applied to the company of angels because of their countless numbers (compare Da 7:10) and their glory. They are represented as standing on the right and left hand of Yahweh (1Ki 22:19). Hence God, who is over them all, is continually called throughout Old Testament "the God of hosts," "Yahweh of hosts," "Yahweh God of hosts"; and once "the prince of the host" (Da 8:11). One of the principal functions of the heavenly host is to be ever praising the name of the Lord (Ps 103:21; 148:1 f). In this host there are certain figures that stand out prominently, and some of them are named. The angel who appears to Joshua calls himself "prince of the host of Yahweh" (Jos 5:14 f). The glorious angel who interprets to Daniel the vision which he saw in the third year of Cyrus (Da 10:5), like the angel who interprets the vision in the first year of Belshazzar (Da 7:16), is not named; but other visions of the same prophet were explained to him by the angel Gabriel, who is called "the man Gabriel," and is described as speaking with "a man’s voice" (Da 9:21; 8:15 f). In Daniel we find occasional reference made to "princes": "the prince of Persia," "the prince of Greece" (Da 10:20). These are angels to whom is entrusted the charge of, and possibly the rule over, certain peoples. Most notable among them is Michael, described as "one of the chief princes," "the great prince who standeth for the children of thy people," and, more briefly, "your prince" (Da 10:13; 12:1; 10:21); Michael is therefore regarded as the patron-angel of the Jews. In Apocrypha Raphael, Uriel and Jeremiel are also named. Of Raphael it is said (Tobit 12:15) that he is "one of the seven holy angels who present the prayers of the saints" to God (compare Re 8:2, "the seven angels that stand before God"). It is possible that this group of seven is referred to in the above-quoted phrase, "one of the chief princes". Some (notably Kosters) have maintained that the expressions "the sons of the ‘elohim," God’s "council" and "congregation," refer to the ancient gods of the heathen, now degraded and wholly subordinated to Yahweh. This rather daring speculation has little support in Scripture; but we find traces of a belief that the patron-angels of the nations have failed in establishing righteousness within their allotted sphere on earth, and that they will accordingly be punished by Yahweh their over-Lord (Isa 24:21 f; Ps 82$; compare Ps 58:1 f the Revised Version, margin; compare Jude 1:6).
3. The Angel of the Theophany:
This angel is spoken of as "the angel of Yahweh," and "the angel of the presence (or face) of Yahweh." The following passages contain references to this angel: Ge 16:7 ff—the angel and Hagar; Ge 18—Abraham intercedes with the angel for Sodom; Ge 22:11 ff—the angel interposes to prevent the sacrifice of Isaac; Ge 24:7,40—Abraham sends Eliezer and promises the angel’s protection; Ge 31:11 ff—the angel who appears to Jacob says "I am the God of Beth-el"; Ge 32:24 ff—Jacob wrestles with the angel and says, "I have seen God face to face"; Ge 48:15 f—Jacob speaks of God and the angel as identical; Ex 3 (compare Ac 7:30 ff)—the angel appears to Moses in the burning bush; Ex 13:21; 14:19 (compare Nu 20:16)—God or the angel leads Israel out of Egypt; Ex 23:20 ff—the people are commanded to obey the angel; Ex 32:34-33:17 (compare Isa 63:9)—Moses pleads for the presence of God with His people; Jos 5:13-6:2—the angel appears to Joshua; #Jud 2:1-5—the angel speaks to the people; Jud 6:11 ff—the angel appears to Gideon.
A study of these passages shows that while the angel and Yahweh are at times distinguished from each other, they are with equal frequency, and in the same passages, merged into each other. How is this to be explained? It is obvious that these apparitions cannot be the Almighty Himself, whom no man hath seen, or can see. In seeking the explanation, special attention should be paid to two of the passages above cited. In Ex 23:20 ff God promises to send an angel before His people to lead them to the promised land; they are commanded to obey him and not to provoke him "for he will not pardon your transgression: for my name is in him." Thus the angel can forgive sin, which only God can do, because God’s name, i.e. His character and thus His authority, are in the angel. Further, in the passage Ex 32:34-33:17 Moses intercedes for the people after their first breach of the covenant; God responds by promising, "Behold mine angel shall go before thee"; and immediately after God says, "I will not go up in the midst of thee." In answer to further pleading, God says, "My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest." Here a clear distinction is made between an ordinary angel, and the angel who carries with him God’s presence. The conclusion may be summed up in the words of Davidson in his Old Testament Theology: "In particular providences one may trace the presence of Yahweh in influence and operation; in ordinary angelic appearances one may discover Yahweh present on some side of His being, in some attribute of His character; in the angel of the Lord He is fully present as the covenant God of His people, to redeem them." The question still remains, Who is theophanic angel? To this many answers have been given, of which the following may be mentioned:
(1) This angel is simply an angel with a special commission;
(2) He may be a momentary descent of God into visibility;
(3) He may be the Logos, a kind of temporary preincarnation of the second person of the Trinity.
Each has its difficulties, but the last is certainly the most tempting to the mind. Yet it must be remembered that at best these are only conjectures that touch on a great mystery. It is certain that from the beginning God used angels in human form, with human voices, in order to communicate with man; and the appearances of the angel of the Lord, with his special redemptive relation to God’s people, show the working of that Divine mode of self-revelation which culminated in the coming of the Saviour, and are thus a fore-shadowing of, and a preparation for, the full revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Further than this, it is not safe to go.
III. Angels in New Testament.
Nothing is related of angels in New Testament which is inconsistent with the teaching of Old Testament on the subject. Just as they are specially active in the beginning of Old Testament history, when God’s people is being born, so they appear frequently in connection with the birth of Jesus, and again when a new order of things begins with the resurrection. An angel appears three times in dreams to Joseph (Mt 1:20; 2:13,19). The angel Gabriel appears to Zacharias, and then to Mary in the annunciation (Lu 1). An angel announces to the shepherds the birth of Jesus, and is joined by a "multitude of the heavenly host," praising God in celestial song (Lu 2:8 ff). When Jesus is tempted, and again during the agony at Gethsemane, angels appear to Him to strengthen His soul (Mt 4:11; Lu 22:43). The verse which tells how an angel came down to trouble the pool (Joh 5:4) is now omitted from the text as not being genuine. An angel descends to roll away the stone from the tomb of Jesus (Mt 28:2); angels are seen there by certain women (Lu 24:23) and (two) by Mary Magdalene (Joh 20:12). An angel releases the apostles from prison, directs Philip, appears to Peter in a dream, frees him from prison, smites Herod with sickness, appears to Paul in a dream (Ac 5:19; 8:26; 10:3; 12:7 ff; 12:23; 27:23). Once they appear clothed in white; they are so dazzling in appearance as to terrify beholders; hence they begin their message with the words "Fear not" (Mt 28:2-5).
2. The Teaching of Jesus about Angels:
It is quite certain that our Lord accepted the main teachings of Old Testament about angels, as well as the later Jewish belief in good and bad angels. He speaks of the "angels in heaven" (Mt 22:30), and of "the devil and his angels" (Mt 25:41). According to our Lord the angels of God are holy (Mr 8:38); they have no sex or sensuous desires (Mt 22:30); they have high intelligence, but they know not the time of the Second Coming (Mt 24:36); they carry (in a parable) the soul of Lazarus to Abraham’s bosom (Lu 16:22); they could have been summoned to the aid of our Lord, had He so desired (Mt 26:53); they will accompany Him at the Second Coming (Mt 25:31) and separate the righteous from the wicked (Mt 13:41,49). They watch with sympathetic eyes the fortunes of men, rejoicing in the repentance of a sinner (Lu 15:10; compare 1Pe 1:12; Eph 3:10; 1Co 4:9); and they will hear the Son of Man confessing or denying those who have confessed or denied Him before men (Lu 12:8 f). The angels of the presence of God, who do not appear to correspond to our conception of guardian angels, are specially interested in God’s little ones (Mt 18:10). Finally, the existence of angels is implied in the Lord’s Prayer in the petition, "Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth" (Mt 6:10).
3. Other New Testament References:
Paul refers to the ranks of angels ("principalities, powers" etc.) only in order to emphasize the complete supremacy of Jesus Christ. He teaches that angels will be judged by the saints (1Co 6:3). He attacks the incipient Gnosticism of Asia Minor by forbidding the, worship of angels (Col 2:18). He speaks of God’s angels as "elect," because they are included in the counsels of Divine love (1Ti 5:21). When Paul commands the women to keep their heads covered in church because of the angels (1Co 11:10) he probably means that the angels, who watch all human affairs with deep interest, would be pained to see any infraction of the laws of modesty. In Heb 1:14 angels are described as ministering spirits engaged in the service of the saints. Peter also emphasizes the supremacy of our Lord over all angelic beings (1Pe 3:22). The references to angels in 2 Peter and Jude are colored by contact with Apocrypha literature. In Revelation, where the references are obviously symbolic, there is very frequent mention of angels. The angels of the seven churches (Re 1:20) are the guardian angels or the personifications of these churches. The worship of angels is also forbidden (Re 22:8 f). Specially interesting is the mention of elemental angels—"the angel of the waters" (Re 16:5), and the angel "that hath power over fire" (Re 14:18; compare Re 7:1; 19:17). Reference is also made to the "angel of the bottomless pit," who is called ABADDON or APOLLYON (which see), evidently an evil angel (Re 9:11 the King James Version, the Revised Version (British and American) "abyss"). In Re 12:7 ff we are told that there was war between Michael with his angels and the dragon with his angels.
IV. Development of the Doctrine.
In the childhood of the race it was easy to believe in God, and He was very near to the soul. In Paradise there is no thought of angels; it is God Himself who walks in the garden. A little later the thought of angels appears, but, God has not gone away, and as "the angel of Yahweh" He appears to His people and redeems them. In these early times the Jews believed that there were multitudes of angels, not yet divided in thought into good and bad; these had no names or personal characteristics, but were simply embodied messages. Till the time of the captivity the Jewish angelology shows little development. During that dark period they came into close contact with a polytheistic people, only to be more deeply confirmed in their monotheism thereby. They also became acquainted with the purer faith of the Persians, and in all probability viewed the tenets of Zoroastrianism with a more favorable eye, because of the great kindness of Cyrus to their nation.
There are few direct traces of Zoroastrianism in the later angelology of the Old Testament. It is not even certain that the number seven as applied to the highest group of angels is Persian in its origin; the number seven was not wholly disregarded by the Jews. One result of the contact was that the idea of a hierarchy of the angels was more fully developed. The conception in Da of angels as "watchers," and the idea of patron-princes or angel-guardians of nations may be set down to Persian influence. It is probable that contact with the Persians helped the Jews to develop ideas already latent in their minds. According to Jewish tradition, the names of the angels came from Babylon. By this time the consciousness of sin had grown more intense in the Jewish mind, and God had receded to an immeasurable distance; the angels helped to fill the gap between God and man. The more elaborate conceptions of Daniel and Zechariah are further developed in Apocrypha, especially in 2 Esdras, Tobit and 2 Macc.
In the New Testament we find that there is little further development; and by the Spirit of God its writers were saved from the absurdly puerile teachings of contemporary Rabbinism. We find that the Sadducees, as contrasted with the Pharisees, did not believe in angels or spirits (Ac 23:8). We may conclude that the Sadducees, with their materialistic standpoint, and denial of the resurrection, regarded angels merely as symbolical expressions of God’s actions. It is noteworthy in this connection that the great priestly document (Priestly Code, P) makes no mention of angels. The Book of Revelation naturally shows a close kinship to the books of Ezekiel and Daniel. Regarding the rabbinical developments of angelology, some beautiful, some extravagant, some grotesque, but all fanciful, it is not necessary here to speak. The Essenes held an esoteric doctrine of angels, in which most scholars find the germ of the Gnostic eons.
V. The Reality of Angels.
A belief in angels, if not indispensable to the faith of a Christian, has its place there. In such a belief there is nothing unnatural or contrary to reason. Indeed, the warm welcome which human nature has always given to this thought, is an argument in its favor. Why should there not be such an order of beings, if God so willed it? For the Christian the whole question turns on the weight to be attached to the words of our Lord. All are agreed that He teaches the existence, reality, and activity of angelic beings. Was He in error because of His human limitations? That is a conclusion which it is very hard for the Christian to draw, and we may set it aside. Did He then adjust His teaching to popular belief, knowing that what He said was not true? This explanation would seem to impute deliberate untruth to our Lord, and must equally be set aside. So we find ourselves restricted to the conclusion that we have the guaranty of Christ’s word for the existence of angels; for most Christians that will settle the question.
The visible activity of angels has come to an end, because their mediating work is done; Christ has founded the kingdom of the Spirit, and God’s Spirit speaks directly to the spirit of man. This new and living way has been opened up to us by Jesus Christ, upon whom faith can yet behold the angels of God ascending and descending. Still they watch the lot of man, and rejoice in his salvation; still they join in the praise and adoration of God, the Lord of hosts, still can they be regarded as "ministering spirits sent forth to do service for the sake of them that shall inherit salvation."
All Old Testament and New Testament theologies contain discussions. Among the older books Oehler’s Old Testament Theology and Hengstenberg’s Christology of Old Testament (for "angel of Yahweh") and among modern ones Davidson’s Old Testament Theology are specially valuable. The ablest supporter of theory that the "sons of the Elohim" are degraded gods is Kosters. "Het onstaan der Angelologie onder Israel," TT 1876. See also articles on "Angel" in HDB (by Davidson), EB, DCG, Jew Encyclopedia, RE (by Cremer). Cremer’s Biblico- Theological New Testament Lexicon should be consulted under the word "aggelos." For Jewish beliefs see also Edersheim’s Life and Times of Jesus, II, Appendix xiii. On the Pauline angelology see Everling, Die paulinische Angelologie. On the general subject see Godet, Biblical Studies; Mozley, The Word, chapter lix, and Latham, A Service of Angels.